This week, 02/29 – 03/04, is the National Lawyers Guild’s Week to End Mass Incarceration. It is part of a shift for the Guild, since NLG passed a resolution last year supporting prison abolition.
First, this series is not going to be completely inline with this resolution. Particularly my own vision of prison abolition, while aiming for an ideal world without cages, I differentiate incarceration and detention. Incarceration is punitive or allegedly rehabilitative deprivation of freedom. Even in the case of the picturesque prisons of Norway, which look nicer than any apartment I’ve lived in these past years in New York City, the wardens are very clear that the relative freedom they have is still very much limited, and that they believe withholding freedom is rehabilitative. I do not agree, and my prison abolition views are centered in this disagreement which I will outline at length.
But while I do not think deprivation of freedom is beneficial to the person, I do think that it is sometimes necessary as an intermediary measure with the current material conditions of the world. While the hysteria of safety used in carceral propaganda is obviously blown well out of proportion, it would be disastrous to open every holding facility in the world right now and let everyone go without the infrastructure to handle it. Further, in a multitude of situations, detention is immediately necessary to prevent violence. I do not believe that people should have to so drastically give up their safety to fight for prison abolition. I did not always think this way: a couple of years ago, I would have called these views limited, reformist, and violent for essentially making a “trade” of the value of life a person detained versus those lives preserved by their detention. However, that was before I had worked for years and been friends for years with people currently or formerly incarcerated. While most of them thought the current system was sadistic and unproductive, the thought of absolute prison abolition was almost as bad. It would be one thing if they were telling me that other people they knew needed to be in there – that could be written off as a product of the Hunger Games mindset that incarceration instills. Rather, it was the number of people who described how incarceration had not so much benefited them as prevented their downward spiral from hurting others. While incarceration is hardly beneficial for communities overall, detention can stop the escalation of violence when done so with that goal in mind.
And that is my major differentiation between incarceration and detention. Incarceration is meant to be violent for the sake of its violence, even in its Scandinavian hippy forms. While I echo Lenin’s sentiment that state action will always be, to a certain degree, violent and coercive, I also share his view that it is necessary for the exploited and oppressed people of the world to seize this state power in the transition between the current capitalist power structure and a future world of real communal democracy. I see detention as the last resort, a final tool to be triggered when anti-violence and prevention methods have failed. It really would be no different than the de-escalation I have done at community gatherings: isolating the person on the verge of or engaging in violence from the people or situation that is facilitating the rise in tension, and if necessary have them leave (I am against permanent bans, but sometimes a person should just take a break).
I think the biggest flaw with “community policing” is that it is an add-on: they police, and on the side they engage with the community. As soon as you’re profiled as a criminal, which can be for as little as being young and Black on the wrong street at the wrong time, the community engagement stops and the policing begins. In a society transitioning to prison abolition, laws are enforced for the good of all people rather than for those who are complacent and conforming. We would try to stop people from committing violence not only for the harm it will cause to others, but the harm it will cause to themselves: damaging their psyche and relationships with others. Detention unfortunately would probably have to be a part of that.
Part 1 of this series will be on the snarky question that many prison abolitionists have gotten – but what about serial killers? Part 2
will highlight alternatives to incarceration: which ones are changing the game and which ones are wielding the very same principles as the prisons they replace.EDIT: because of DA Vance’s recent decision, I decided to write a post on Broken Windows instead. Part 3 of this series will explore how sexual violence would be dealt with in a prison abolition framework, and whether victim-centered responses to sexual violence are compatible with abolition. Part 4 will talk about the Thirteenth Amendment and immediate, constitutional strategies for chipping away at its prison provision. Part 5 will be on those we would actually probably enjoy seeing go to prison, like neo-Nazis or ultra-wealthy bankers, and how we must temper the fury of our quest for justice with radical forgiveness. Part 6 will be on a Marxist conception of prison abolition, and how guilt is a market force even when imposed by the state.